From Statistician to Exposer of Art Forgeries—Geraldine Norman is the Real Thing
They say you can’t tell a book by its cover. Take Geraldine Norman, a seemingly staid, conservatively dressed English woman whom I met last December in Suffolk, England.
At that time she merely told me she was a writer. It took a full sit-down interview to find out that she worked two decades as a highly regarded, award-winning reporter for The Times of London. Best known for exposing art forgeries in front-page stories, she went on to write four critically acclaimed books on art.
Later Geraldine started a second career, first founding and then working full-time as the director of the Hermitage Foundation UK, which supports the Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg. She was happily married to John Frank Norman, a renowned London novelist and playwright. In fact, her life has been so exciting that you can read about her achievements in writing and the arts (and her husband’s) in Wikipedia.
Curiously, Geraldine’s story began not with words or art, but with numbers.
A Statistician Finds Her Voice
Geraldine didn’t intend to be a writer or an art critic. Rather, she studied mathematics at Oxford University and went on to study statistics at UCLA. Her first job with The Times was not as a journalist, but as their first editorial statistician.
“They had no idea what a statistician should do,” says Geraldine, with her wry sense of humor. “So in the end I collected bits and made charts and wrote about them. That was very popular with my editor.”
But her job as a statistician also landed her a major career breakthrough when she was asked to write a leader (think piece) about automation and computers. “I didn’t know anything about computers, but I was young and eager to try,” she says. She ended up being the first woman to write a “leader” for The Times.
That was in 1964, and soon she was asked to create the first index of art prices in a collaboration between Sotheby’s and The Times. From there, now familiar with the art world, she became the saleroom correspondent of The Times in 1969, which meant she reported on the most expensive and famous sales of art at Sotheby’s, Christie’s and other famous auction houses around the world.
That was also the year Geraldine met her husband, a writer known for his autobiographical books and novels and a smash-hit play that won the Evening Standard Drama Award for best musical in 1960.
“So that was a key moment,” she says in her understated way.
In 1976, Geraldine created a sensation by discovering that thirteen drawings by the 19th-century artist Samuel Palmer were in fact forgeries by art restorer Tom Keating, which she revealed in a series of front-page articles in The Times. She received the United Kingdom’s Reporter of the Year award for her investigative reporting.
Geraldine says the most expensive work of art that she wrote about was a Van Gogh “Sunflowers” that was sold at £24.75 million at Christie’s in 1987. She subsequently produced a documentary after being advised that the Van Gogh painting was a fake. And in an unexpected turn of events, she and her husband ended up co-authoring a candid book on the traffic of art forgeries—called The Fake’s Progress—with Tom Keating, the very art forger she had exposed.
“It was all very sensational stuff,” she says.
A Tragedy and A Turning Point
Geraldine had been happily married for ten years when tragedy struck. The day before Christmas in 1980, her beloved husband passed away unexpectedly.
“He was only 50 and I was 40, so I was devastated,” she says. “I tried everything to bring myself out of grief, going back to my Christian faith, going to a psychotherapist, and attending a fashionable thing called the Enlightenment Seminar. Nothing helped.”
Then a friend gave her the number of a Transcendental Meditation (TM) instructor nearby. Just before Christmas and the first anniversary of her husband’s death, she learned TM.
“I had to hide it from my family because they would have thought that it was madness,” she says. “So even though I was faithfully practicing TM throughout the Christmas holiday, I kept them from noticing what I was doing.”
During that week, she had an epiphany. “I suddenly realized that the extreme pain I’d been experiencing for the past year was leaving me,” she says. “And it felt so good that I was amazed. I have continued meditating regularly all these years, and have been extremely happy with it ever since.”
A Passion for the Hermitage
After Rupert Murdoch purchased The Times, Geraldine eventually quit and joined The Independent, a new newspaper that upheld more traditional journalistic values.
As their saleroom correspondent, her columns were syndicated in the US, Japan, France, and Germany. When the Soviet Union broke up, she felt she should report on art sales there too.
This was the beginning of another artistic journey that has continued to the present day: her support of the Hermitage, the famous Russian museum established by Catherine the Great in 1764.
“Sotheby’s agent in Russia took me to St. Petersburg and introduced me to the director of the Hermitage, Mikhail Piotrovsky,” Geraldine says. “I had worked out that my first article would be ‘What has happened to the Hermitage since the revolution?’ I spent two days in the museum and concluded this was a book.”
She ended up writing The Hermitage: The Biography of a Great Museum, which was published in 1997 and is described by one reviewer as a “scholarly page-turner about the political intrigue, property seizures, heroic preservation efforts, and wartime crises that have shaped the long history of the Hermitage Museum.” Publisher’s Weekly wrote, “This study is an achievement because it remains so readable, despite the encyclopedic march of facts.”
During the two years she spent working on the book, the museum became an important presence in Geraldine’s life. “Before I wrote the last chapter I realized I was going to have no reason to come back,” she says. “And by that time I was seriously attached to the Hermitage.”
So in characteristic form, she made herself useful. She asked the director if he would like an unpaid agent to search for supporters in the West, since the museum’s funding was on shaky ground after the Soviet Union collapsed.
He said “yes.”
Since then she has worked tirelessly to support the Hermitage. Backed by Lord Rothschild and a consortium of investors, she established the Hermitage Rooms in Somerset House in 2000, which mounted twelve exhibitions from the Hermitage collection over a period of seven years. In 2001 she launched the Hermitage Magazine and became its first editor. That year she also established and became the director of an independent foundation that is now called The Hermitage Foundation UK.
While the foundation’s sole purpose is to support the Hermitage Museum, it does have a more specific aim: to help the museum collect and curate art made after the Russian Revolution.
“When I first visited the Hermitage, their collection stopped after 1917,” she says. “Around 2007, partly at my urging, they decided they were going to launch a contemporary and modern art department. So the Hermitage Foundation supports exhibitions of contemporary art.”
To that end, Geraldine herself is mounting an exhibition at the Hermitage this summer on Max Ernst, the German Surrealist. Since she has spent most of her life supporting the arts, I ask Geraldine why the arts are important to us today.
“I suppose it’s because the arts address a profound level—philosophy and life and death and the transcendent,” she says. “Today’s lifestyle is very fast, superficial and facile, so the arts are particularly important to give people a way to a more satisfying and profound life. Also, one must admit, that arts are a pleasure, so one can study and learn about them and enjoy them at the same time.”
Does she feel that her life-long practice of the Transcendental Meditation technique has contributed to her appreciation of the arts?
“Someone once said that paintings come out of the soul,” she says. “Meditation also is not about the rational world. I think that with a work by Rembrandt, say, you can’t appreciate it in a facile way, just as paint on canvas. He has put his spirit, his soul into the painting. And that is what—if you’re a bit sensitive to it—you see and appreciate. So I think that’s why the arts are so important, and that’s where the arts and the meditation experience meet, you could say.”
Still Working at Age 79
At age 79 Geraldine is still working full time as director of the Hermitage Foundation UK, arranging exhibitions, hosting visiting curators from the Hermitage, and organizing an annual fundraising gala among many other activities.
“That is the great advantage of having signed up to work for no money—I can continue working as long as I like,” she says with characteristic humor.
So far, Geraldine has no intention of stopping. She has plans to bring in a new director and become a consultant “so I can choose the projects I work on.” And she intends to keep writing, having published her latest book at age 75.
“Working is keeping me active—and I suppose you could say it’s keeping me young,” she says. “I think TM is also useful while growing old. It’s helped me to think about things that no one understands, like life and death and consciousness and so on. And I think that that is a marvelous gift.”
About the Author
Linda Egenes writes about green and healthy living and is the author of six books, including The Ramayana: A New Retelling of Valmiki’s Ancient Epic—Complete and Comprehensive, co-authored with Kumuda Reddy, M.D.